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GOVERNANCE IN THE AGE OF HYPER-SCRUTINY

Published: 
Saturday, May 27, 2017

Granted, it’s taken the government some time to get up to speed, but the scandals are beginning to emerge. The most recent episode involving the Minister of Sport, Youth Affairs and Inarticulateness, Darryl Smith, shows the government doesn’t understand that the agents of hyper-scrutiny didn’t hang up their guns when the People’s Partnership demitted office.

The “high-performing” Smith is scrambling to justify a bloated ministry entourage to attend what was, by all accounts, a modest sports function in Tobago.

Reports of a bill totalling $92,000 for a weekend visit elicited gasps and guffaws. The news rankled members of the public who have been asked to tighten their belts while the Minister of Sport appears to be letting out his pants.

The story was broken by journalist and independent blogger Charmaine Baboolal. Reporters picking up the story caught up with Minister Smith who, ill-advisedly, answered their questions. “…again, you looking at it as a Tobago and beach and fun and so on, you are not talking about we attended (other events).” In reading the minister’s responses, it was difficult to tell if that was a genuine response, or some sort of word scramble game.

News reports suggest the ministry has launched a probe into the leaking of emails detailing expenses and other pertinent information surrounding the Tobago jaunt.

It seems the launching of that probe was leaked to the person who first broke the story; a cruel irony.

That’s another point seemingly lost on this government. Targeting whistleblowers or plugging the leaks isn’t the answer to their troubles. Their energies would be better directed towards building governance structures obviating the need for leaks.

Supporting a regulatory environment hostile to misconduct or screw ups in public office is always a better strategy than trying to keep corruption and bumbling under wraps.

On cue, the volunteer PNM junta leapt to the minister’s defence on social media. Drawing from their sycophant’s quiver, they fired off the tired old comparisons: PNM waste and profligacy vs UNC knavery and five-year squanda-thon. “So they criticising Daryl Smith for a $92,000 bill, what about all the millions Kamla spent on her trips and on her sister?”

There will always be those beholden to their political prisms and echo chambers. As such, they won’t accept that regardless of party, theft and corruption are the same irrespective of the amounts involved.

What’s the difference between a person who steals a $12 block of cheese in the grocery and someone who steals a $100 steak? None, they are both thieves.

The fact that bloggers, the media and members of the public have taken to the sport ministry imbroglio like a school of piranha should come as no surprise.

“Malfeasance in public office is becoming a far less acceptable facet of life in T&T. Bloggers, activists, or fidgety retirees with a decent internet connection…ordinary folks will be waiting to pounce on the slightest infraction exposed on either side.”

Those words are lifted from a column I wrote in 2015, shortly after the PNM returned to office. The trend of hyper-scrutiny came into its own during the last Patrick Manning-led PNM administration. It ravaged the People’s Partnership for the entirety of its beleaguered life in office, and persists as a thorn in the side of the current administration.

Upon the PNM’s resumption of office, my writings warned that Prime Minister Rowley shouldn’t expect any easing of the hawk-eyed observations which mortally wounded the People’s Partnership.

The times, along with the people have changed, and thus was born the ethos of the “Monday-morning scandal.” Every week seemed to present a new low for the Kamla Persad-Bissessar regime. The PP was swamped with Titanic leaks and busybodies in ministries and state agencies with axes in need of grinding who were happy to tattle on the government.

This trend was ably abetted by the spread of social media as the citizen journalist was born.

Ministers found themselves captured on unflattering cell phone videos (poor lighting and all this) in breathtakingly compromising situations. Documents, scanned cheques, incriminating emails; all contained in the bulging bags of mystery mail workers delivering their damning evidence to proverbial mailboxes.

It isn’t merely the recalcitrant media that politicians must contend with, the threat surrounds them like air. Some whistleblowers are empowered by technology, political agendas and, less likely, a moral compunction to expose wrongdoing. Others may be devout party supporters who feel slighted, passed over or wronged by a government official. Sworn political allegiances are set aside as resentments foment betrayal.

Darryl Smith’s ministry travel expenses, Shamfa Cudjoe’s roaming charges, Camille Robinson-Regis’ questionable banking transactions; these all demonstrate that the government hasn’t quite gotten it. It is no longer business as usual.

To quote The Smiths’ front man Morrisey, “There’s always someone somewhere with a big nose who knows, and trips you up and laughs when you fall.”

The government must learn to function in an age of hyper-scrutiny. In this social media-driven environment, there are simply too many messengers to shoot.

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